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‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

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on voting and democracy in the USA: some history and some problems

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Congratulations, Germany wins

I try not to be anti-USA, but it’s hard sometimes. Lately I’ve been hearing that old chestnut, the American Experiment, being promulgated by Joe Biden among others. And the other day I was negatively energised by the lawyer and political pundit Jeremy Bash, who spoke of the US as the greatest democracy the world has ever known, or words to that effect. By ‘greatest democracy’ he also no doubt meant ‘greatest nation’, since we all quote the mantra that democracy is the worst political system apart from all the others. But to describe nation x as the greatest nation in the world is just as puerile as saying that person x is the greatest person in the world. There are no objective measures for such things. Such remarks highlight what I’ve written before about ‘American exceptionalism’. United Staters are exceptional only in their religiosity and their jingoism, which doesn’t augur well for having exceptional self-critical capacities.

But to return to democracy talk. The ‘American experiment’ idea, never quite made explicit, is that modern democracy is a US invention, a form of Enlightenment that they’ve been trying to spread to a largely reluctant world. The facts tell a different story.

The US declared independence from Britain in 1776, but of course the new country was full of British ex-pats and Britain was still a major influence. I’ve heard more than one US pundit speak about their fight against a tyrant king, George III. Not quite true. Britain in 1776 had been a constitutional monarchy for more than 80 years, with a Prime Minister, Frederick North (Lord North), elected under an extremely limited franchise. Britain had executed a tyrant king, Charles I, in the 1640s, and had chased another one out of the country in the 1680s. The country experimented with the first parliamentary system in the 1650s under a Lord Protector (something like a Presidency), Oliver Cromwell. Anyone who has studied the British civil war of the 1640s will be aware of how politically savvy and committed the general populace was at that time.

The War of Independence ended well for the potential new nation, which was undeniably being tyrannised by Britain. Powerful countries or states tend to tyrannise smaller ones. This occurred, obviously, during Britain’s imperial period, and it occurred in the USA’s treatment of the Phillippines, Nicaragua and Vietnam. That is why we need more collaborative international peace-keeping, with no single nation being allowed to consider itself or to behave as the world’s police officer.

So when the potential new nation came to consider its form of government, it looked largely to the ‘mother country’, bad mother though it had turned out to be. Even Magna Carta, seen through an eighteenth century lens, had an influence on the US Constitution and state legislatures. However, the most important British reference was their 1689 Bill of Rights, inspired (to a much-debated degree) by the political philosophy of John Locke. This important document has provided a template for many national constitutions, including that of the USA. The US founding fathers were also much influenced by a contemporary firebrand, Britisher Tom Paine, whose 1776 pamphlet Common Sense became something of a sensation. Pressures against traditional tyrannies, such as absolute monarchies and aristocratic oligarchies, were growing throughout Europe in the late eighteenth century in response to ideas expressed in Rousseau’s The Social Contract and Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, among other works.

My point here is not to deny the experiment in modern democracy of the founding fathers and their collaborators. My argument is that this wasn’t the first experiment, nor was it by any means an experiment in full democracy. It was just one of many baby steps toward the full adult franchise that many democratic nations enjoy today. The 1789 election which brought George Washington, unopposed, to the presidency gave the vote to white property-owning men only – somewhere between 6% and 7% of the population. Women weren’t given the right to vote nationally until 1920, after decades of struggle. The Snyder Act of 1924 gave Native United Staters the ‘right to vote’, but left the final decision to state legislatures, leading to a fifty-year struggle to have that right fully established nationwide. African-Americans or ‘black’ men (I have serious issues with black-white terminology, which I present elsewhere – see links below) were given the right to vote by the 15th amendment of 1870, though voter suppression was endemic under ‘Jim Crow’ laws until the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, as we see today, that act has not prevented contemporary voter suppression by right-wing states.

The US voting and governmental system doesn’t seem to compare favourably with that of Australia, where I live. Australian governments are Westminster-based, as are the governments of the UK, Canada, New Zealand, India and South Africa, with obvious variations. That means the Prime Ministers of those countries are not elected directly by the populace, as occurs in the USA. They’re first elected by their particular parties, on the putative basis that they can best represent and promote that party’s policies to the people. The Prime Minister works in the Parliament – the Westminster version of Congress – and chooses her cabinet from other elected Members of Parliament, as opposed to the directly elected US President’s chief officers, who are personally chosen by the President, with no necessary experience in government. The Prime Minister (primum inter pares – first among equals) works inside the Parliament, shoulder to shoulder with her colleagues and within spitting distance of the opposition, whereas the US president is completely separated from Congress and is surrounded by his own personal staff and decision-makers, and so freed from direct confrontation with political opposition, or from defending his political actions and positions.

The case of Trump underlines many of the problems of the US system. United Staters boast that ‘anyone can become President’, but this isn’t such a great idea. There needs to be a basic proficiency test that, at the very least, separates adult contenders from children. Trump took advantage of this complete lack of vetting, and as such, took advantage of the major flaw in democracy that was pointed out nearly 2500 years ago by the likes of Plato and Aristotle. Unabashed anti-democratic elitists, these philosophers personally witnessed the damage that a populist demagogue, a person who promised everything but delivered nothing, could do to their state. The rise of Trump, always an object of contempt to the political elite, whether right or left, essentially repeated this 2500 year-old trick – appeal directly to the people, pretend you are one of them, and don’t stint on vague elaborate claims – drain the swamp, build the wall, make the state great again. The Republican Party was initially very reluctant to embrace Trump, but finally embraced his fanatical popularity among ‘the base’, with disastrous consequences for both the party and the nation.

How will the USA dig itself out of this hole? In the short term, there needs to be consequences for a person who has lived a whole life, from childhood, without consequences. Honestly, this doesn’t seem likely to happen. United Staters blindly worship their Presidential system, and remember their Presidents by number – something which will never be emulated by other nations. Recent events – including two impeachments -have shown that there are no clear laws or procedures for dumping a criminal President. The US President appears, for all intents and purposes, to be above the law, apparently due to the importance of is position. One would think it was self-evident that with great power comes great responsibility, including legal responsibility, but it has now become clear that in the USA, the President can act as a dictator between Presidential elections. I see no serious legislative activity to change this ludicrous situation. Gentleman’s agreements don’t cut it.

Voter suppression just isn’t a thing in Australia, New Zealand and other Westminster-based countries. In Australia, voting is mandatory, all Australian citizens over eighteen must vote in federal and state elections, or incur a fine. This includes all those in prison for sentences of three years or less. All ex-offenders must vote. Very few people object to these requirements. And of course, all voting takes place on a Saturday, to inconvenience as few working people as possible. The USA’s Tuesday voting system harks back to its agrarian past, and also its religious attitude to ‘days of rest’. It’s frankly too depressing to go into further detail. Needless to say, a Tuesday voting system acts against the needs of the working poor. The USA has the lowest minimum wage of any developed country. Australia, incidentally, has the highest. I point this out as a non-nationalist (though not an anti-nationalist).

No voting system is perfect (Australia, like the US, has problems with gerrymandering) but some are more perfect than others. A voting system that has a multitude of state laws for voting in a federal election is clearly disastrous. The USA seems overly governed in this regard. There is also too much voting – major national elections every two years means that the nation is almost perpetually in election mode. There also appears to be little oversight with regard to the vast amounts of funds spent on campaigning and lobbying, which obviously tilts votes in favour of the moneyed class in a nation with the largest rich-poor divide in the world.

I’ve pointed out just some of the problems facing ‘the world’s greatest democracy’. Many of its other problems are social – failures in the basic education system, massive incarceration rates, especially for victimless crimes, the intensification of partisan politics exacerbated by social media and the absence of a multi-party political system, and out-of-control gun and armaments ownership, to name a few. All of this requires root and branch reform, which I don’t see happening. It’s a shame. Europe now seems to be emerging as our best hope for the future.


Australia had the highest minimum wage in the world in 2019

Written by stewart henderson

July 18, 2021 at 6:49 pm